Energy synergy

Kudos to the Garfield County commissioners for taking a forward-looking approach to solid waste management that will benefit both energy companies and the public should energy production in the region ramp up again.

No one knows when that will be, if ever, but President-elect Donald Trump has already announced a battle against regulations hampering the U.S. energy industry. His pro-fossil fuel energy policy coincides with a new estimate by the U.S. Geologic Survey that the Piceance Basin contains 66 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — or about 40 times more than what officials previously estimated.

At the same time, counties and municipalities in northwest Colorado are pressing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reconsider its rejection of an export facility and connector pipeline that would ship natural gas from the Piceance to Japan.

Trump may have an opportunity to wield some influence here. The five-member FERC is down two commissioners. If President Obama doesn’t appoint two non-Democrats before his term expires, Trump will be able to fill the vacancies with his own appointments. But from Colorado’s perspective, this isn’t a partisan issue. Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, both Democrats, support the project. So do U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, both Republicans.

If FERC green-lights the $7 billion project, producers in the region would have the opportunity to establish agreements with Japanese utilities at a long-term fixed price. Even if the project remains tied up in regulatory red-tape, Trump’s efforts to roll back regulatory burdens may encourage drilling not tied to the project.

Garfield County commissioners couldn’t have known that the slumping industry would be positioned for a turnaround in 2014 when they decided to leverage their resources to establish the first facility of its kind in Colorado to use microbes to clean petroleum-contaminated soil, or PCS.

Untreated PCS used to be used as landfill cover. But the state Air Pollution Control Division nixed the practice, citing provisions of the Clean Air Act. So Garfield County decided to find a way to treat the contaminated soil, developing a system so novel that state air regulators had to devise a cleanup standard for the facility.

As The Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported Nov. 3, the county received a $300,000 energy-impact grant from the state Department of Local Affairs for the project, which blends two treatment technologies to clean the soil. The system went into operation in mid-July and by Labor Day the soil in the pilot project was clean. Now officials are seeing how well the system works in the winter.

The facility is designed to be expandable and has a state permit to treat 14,000 tons per year. Fees charged to companies using the facility will fund its operation.

More importantly, the facility is a piece of infrastructure that supports an industry synonymous with the regional economy. The county is meeting a need faced by producers who would otherwise have to ship contaminated soil out of state. The county gets to use the treated soil as landfill cover material, which is hard to come by, and the public benefits by having harmful pollutants turned into benign matter.

If drilling ever reaches the activity of the mid-2000s, we’ll all be thankful that Garfield County commissioners had the foresight to mitigate one of the harmful impacts.


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